Category Archives: Russell

Bertrand Russell: The Value of Philosophy

Readers of this blog know that Bertrand Russell is one of my intellectual heroes. I believe that Russell was the greatest philosopher in the twentieth century and quite possibly the greatest philosopher of the entire Western intellectual tradition. (You can find a brief introduction to some of his many contributions to philosophy here.)

For many years I introduced philosophy in my college classes by discussing its value. One of the most beautiful statements on that topic is from Russell’s classic, The Problems of Philosophy.  I know of no more beautiful statement of the value of philosophy than this. It deserves a careful and conscientious reading.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value — perhaps its chief value — through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps — friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad — it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Bertrand Russell on Fearing Thought

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 12, 2016.)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. ~ Bertrand Russell

A while back I dedicated a post to this quote and titled it “We Fear Thought.” Recently I received a thoughtful comment regarding that post. The essence of the comment is this:

While common anxieties like fear of the unknown or fear of failure may play some role, I think the more likely explanation is more mundane: the vast majority of individuals lack the means, motive and/or opportunity to think critically … Each individual has a unique combination of genes, nutrition, family influences, educational opportunities and the chance encounters with the environment that all influence the ability and desire for critical thinking. But even with the highest ability and motivation, an individual might have a stifling daily life that limits the opportunity for thought.

If this is correct it leads the commenter to conclude that:

Rather than focusing on “fear” as preventing critical thinking, which is an implicit judgement on an individual’s strength of character, we need to focus on providing the environment that can enhance the ability, motivation and opportunity for an individual to critically think about today’s issues, with motivation being the most difficult to address. We need to strengthen education and foster reflective public discourse …

I agree with the commentator that critical thinking demands: 1) ability; 2) motivation; and 3) opportunity. I also agree that we should provide environments that make critical thinking possible. And I think Russell would agree with all of this too.

But for those who do possess the ability and opportunity to think critically—which is most of us in the first world—why do so many think so poorly? Why do they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and not in biological evolution? Why do the believe President Obama was born in Kenya or that climate change isn’t real? Why do they fear immigration rather than their fellow citizens? Clearly some reject critical thinking because it’s difficult. It is just easier to accept what the blowhards say on the radio, tv,  the internet or in church than to think carefully about whether what they’re saying makes sense.

Are all the scientists who have devoted their lifetime to the study of biology or climate science really involved in a conspiracy? If Obama really wasn’t born in the US, don’t you think someone would have found that out by now? Aren’t stories of virgin births more likely to be myths than historical facts? After all, virgin births are common in pagan mythology and nobody take those stories seriously. Don’t they realize that their chances of being killed by their fellow citizens far outweigh their chances of being killed by foreigner? Clearly it is just easier for people to believe what they are told than to assess whether what they are being told is reasonable.

But another reason that people don’t think is the reason that Russell notes—they fear that thinking might disrupt their worldview. As Camus put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” I have had many university students through the decades who saw that thinking might undermine their cherished beliefs, and in response they retreated. They did fear their worldview might come crumbling down, and with it perhaps their relationships with those who shared those worldviews. Thinking is feared because it might destroy so much of what you are. We shouldn’t be critical of those who fear thinking about new things, and perhaps they are better off never questioning their long-held beliefs. But that doesn’t change the fact that they recoil in large part because they are afraid.

Summary of Bertrand Russell’s, “A Free Man’s Worship”

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, atheist, and social critic. He is considered, along with his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the founders of analytic philosophy and is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s most important logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics in logic. His writings were voluminous and covered a vast range of topics including politics, ethics, and religion. Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Russell is thought by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Russell’s view of the meaning of life is set forth most clearly in his 1903 essay: “A Free Man’s Worship.” It is truly one of the classics of the meaning of life literature. It begins with an imaginary conversation about the history of creation between Mephistopheles, the devil, and Dr. Faustus, a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for power and wealth. In Russell’s story god had grown weary of the praise of the angels, and thought it might be more amusing to gain the praise of beings that suffered. Hence god created the world.

Russell describes the epic cosmic drama, and how after eons of time the earth and human beings came to be. Humans, seeing how fleeting and painful life is before their inevitable death, vowed that there must be some purpose outside of this world. And though following their instincts led to sin and the need for god’s forgiveness, humans believed that god had a good plan leading to a harmonious ending for humankind. God, convinced of human gratitude for the suffering he had caused, destroyed man and all creation.

Russell argues that this not-so-uplifting story is consistent with the world-view of modern science. To elaborate he penned some of the most pessimistic and often quoted lines in the history of twentieth-century philosophy:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[i]

Still, despite the ultimate triumph of vast universal forces, humans are superior to this unconscious power in important ways—they are free and self-aware. This is the source of their value. But most humans do not recognize this, instead choosing to placate and appease the gods in hope of reprieve from everlasting torment. They refuse to believe that their gods do not deserve praise, worshiping them despite the pain the gods inflict. Ultimately they fear the power of the gods, but such power is not a reason for respect and worship. For respect to be justified, creation must really be good. But the reality of the world belies this claim; the world is not good and submitting to its blind power enslaves and ultimately kills us.

Instead let us courageously admit that the world is bad, Russell says, but nevertheless love truth, goodness, beauty, and perfection, despite the fact that the universe will destroy such things. By rejecting this universal power and the death it brings, we find our true freedom. While our lives will be taken from us by the universe, our thoughts can be free in the face of this power. In this way we maintain our dignity.

However, we should not respond to the disparity between the facts of the world and its ideal form with indignation, for this binds our thoughts to the evil of the universe. Rather we ought to follow the Stoics, resigned to the fact that life does not give us all we want. By renouncing desires we achieve resignation, while the freedom of our thoughts can still create art, philosophy and beauty. But even these goods ought not to be desired too ardently, or we will remain indignant; rather we must be resigned to accept that our free thoughts are all that life affords in a hostile universe. We must be resigned to the existence of evil, and to the fact that death, pain, and suffering will take everything from us. The courageous bear their suffering nobly and without regret; their submission to power an expression of their wisdom.

Still, we need not be entirely passive in our renunciation. We can actively create music, art, poetry and philosophy, thereby incorporating the ephemeral beauty of this world into our hearts, achieving the most that humans can achieve. Yet such achievements are difficult, for we must first encounter despair and dashed hopes so that we may be somewhat freed from the Fate that will engulf us all—freed by the wisdom, insight, joy, and tenderness that our encounter with darkness brings. As Russell puts it:

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognize that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.[ii]

In our minds we can create beauty in the face of Fate and tragedy, and thereby thwart nature to some extent. Life is tragedy, but we need not give in; instead we can find the “beauty of tragedy” and embrace it. In death and pain there is sanctity, awe, and a feeling of the sublime. Such feelings allow us to reject petty and trivial desires, and to transcend the loneliness and futility we experience when confronted with vast forces which are both indifferent and inimical to us. To take the tragedy of life into one’s heart, and respond with renunciation, wisdom, and charity, is the ultimate victory for man: “To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things—this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship.”[iii] For Russell the contemplation of Fate and tragedy are the way we subdue them.

As for our fellow companions, all we can do is to ease their sorrow and sufferings, and not add to the misery that Fate and death will bring. In his we can take pride. Nonetheless the universe continues its inevitable march to universal death, and humans are condemned to lose everything. All we can do is to cherish those brief moments when thought and love ennoble us, and reject the cowardly terror of less virtuous persons who worship Fate. We must ignore the tyranny of reality that continually undermines all of our hopes and aspirations. As Russell so eloquently puts it:

Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish … the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.[iv]

Summary – There is no objective meaning in life. We should be resigned to this, but strive nonetheless to actively create beauty, truth, and perfection. In this way we achieve some freedom from the eternal forces that will destroy us.


[i] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 56.
[ii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 59.
[iii] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 60.
[iv] Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 61.

Bertrand Russell: “How To Grow Old”

Perhaps no one has spoken more clearly on growing old than the great philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay “How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

This is one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.

Bertrand Russell: His Last Written Words

The Story of the Final Manuscript

The history of Russell’s last manuscript is fascinating. This excerpt from the Independent tells the story:

Unlike most of Russell’s papers, it did not go to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, when the Russell Archives were set up in 1968. Nor did it go with the residue of Russell’s papers, now known as the ‘Second Russell Archives’, when that was sent on to McMaster after Russell’s death. Kenneth Blackwell, the Russell archivist who is generally taken by scholars in the field to be omniscient on the subject, did not even know that this manuscript existed until he saw a copy of Life of Bertrand Russell in Pictures and His Own Words,  a book of photographs published to mark Russell’s centenary in 1972. One of the pictures was of Russell’s study at Plas Penrhyn, his home in north Wales. It showed his desk set out as if ready for him to begin work, with his pen, some books, some unanswered correspondence and a manuscript. This last, Blackwell noticed, was dated 1967 and … was not a manuscript he had seen before … He asked Russell’s widow about it and in 1977, a year before she died, Edith handed it over to the archives. [Yet the manuscript was not made public until 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the archives.] 

The Context of the Final Manuscript

Russell had made other attempts to sum up his life and its importance, including in the famous introduction to his biography, which many consider one of the finest pieces of short prose ever written. (The famous four paragraphs can be found at the bottom of my biography.) But in his final years he became increasingly focused on the existential threat of nuclear weapons, and began to judge his life in terms of his efforts to lessen this threat. Russell was one of the most visible opponents of nuclear weapons, and along with Einstein signed what came to be known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto condemning nuclear weapons.

Another point to remember is that at that time this short manuscript was penned Russell was 95 years old, and rumored to be senile or at least no longer capable of coherent writing. The hand-written page proved otherwise, displaying a lucidity of style that eludes most writers at their peak.

The Last Manuscript

Russell’s final words began: “The time has come to review my life as a whole, and to ask whether it has served any useful purpose or has been wholly concerned in futility. Unfortunately, no answer is possible for anyone who does not know the future.” After so many years of study, an answer to the most important question we can ask was not forthcoming. Yet a glimmer of optimism remained. The final sentences ever written by one of Western civilizations great writers and philosophers looked to the future.

Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture.

There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.

Reflections – Clearly by the end of his life Russell identified with humanity at large; he wanted to escape from the limitations of his own ego. He wished for both world peace and to escape the loneliness which we all endure as necessarily isolated individuals. “Letting the artist loose” is thus a way to preserve the world and overcome our fear of individual death.

Finally here is Russell, in his late eighties, answering a question about what lessons he would leave to future generations.